Milton Babbitt: A Discussion in 12 Parts

Milton Babbitt: A Discussion in 12 Parts

11. Some Advice for Young Composers

FRANK J. OTERI: So, this is the future: You teach students here.

MILTON BABBITT: Not for much longer probably.

FRANK J. OTERI: You chair the BMI Young Composer Awards.

MILTON BABBITT: Yeah, I don’t even know why I continue to do that except that it is so very nice.

FRANK J. OTERI: So, what do you say to these students about the music they want to write, the ideas they have.

MILTON BABBITT: You are asking now at the end the question that should have been asked first because it’s the most difficult of all questions.

FRANK J. OTERI: That’s why I saved it.

MILTON BABBITT: It’s very, very tough. In my day, you could think about an academic job. You could think about, “Look, you know, I’ll get a couple of pieces played, I’ll write a couple of articles, and I’ll get a good teaching job where I can do more or less what I want to do. There are no teaching jobs anymore. Maybe for a few computer specialists but not for anybody else.

FRANK J. OTERI: So what are you going to tell them?

MILTON BABBITT: I tell them the facts of life. Here they can look around and the facts of life confront them every moment of their lives. They know, first of all, most of these people are not going to get academic jobs because they don’t have the academic qualifications, because the jobs are so few and far between. They want PhDs; they want things that these people don’t have. Many of them go into computers; many of them do commercial work. They’re still doing it already while they’re students here. Many of them just drop out. Look, two of them (I’m not going to name names of course), two of the most remarkably gifted people I’ve ever known in music dropped out. One, you won’t believe, he’s a big, big, big shot at the technical end of IBM. Another one went off to Australia where he’s teaching at a university, not teaching music. And these were remarkable talents. And everybody admitted that this was not just some quirk on my part. These are not idiosyncratic cases; these are kids that could do all kinds of things. And there’s a third one who’s here in New York whom I won’t embarrass by naming, who was one of the most remarkable students that ever came here, who wrote an orchestral piece for a doctoral thesis that they wouldn’t play, the conductor here wouldn’t conduct it and Peter Mennin was then the president of the Juilliard School and he looked at the score and he said, “We must do it.” And he brought in an outside conductor to do it. This man also was a terrific pianist and has an LP of difficult contemporary music and couldn’t get a teaching job. He’s now doing some kind of business. He’s now writing occasional articles for the newspaper that remained nameless in our discussion.

FRANK J. OTERI: So in terms of the music they’re writing, that the students are writing now…

MILTON BABBITT: They’re all over the place.

FRANK J. OTERI: Is that good?

MILTON BABBITT: They’re all over the place. It has to be; it reflects what’s going on. There’s certain kind of music that you will not see here; that people will not be writing, call it what you will—imitation rap or that kind of thing—which you do get in some universities now. You know, you won’t find that. You won’t find, I guess you won’t find jazz composition, which you would find in some places, even though we have a jazz program here now, a very celebrated one in some terms. But they’re writing everything. They’re just doing every conceivable thing. Very much it depends upon the person with whom they choose to study.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now, do you try to steer them toward twelve-tone music?

MILTON BABBITT: God no! I mean who am I to send these people to their death? No, absolutely not. I try to come to terms with what they want to do. And I usually do that not by sending them to scores that might be pertinent, sending them sometimes to articles—they’re not given much to reading articles but some do. There are some great exceptions here. There are some intellectually very superior kids here. And they study a great many scores. They listen to an enormous amount of music and as I said, they write the music they would most like to hear. Some of them, most of them do, very much in the non-vulgar sense, their own thing.

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